Hidden Treasures: Wineries of Corrales
By Michele Ostrove
On my first visit to the village of Corrales (“on your way to everywhere,” says its brochure), I was surprised to discover that it’s a destination that could easily consume a leisurely weekend. Nestled between Rio Rancho and the Rio Grande River just west of Interstate 25, Corrales boasts nine charming B&Bs, seven restaurants, and a sprinkling of farm stands, artist studios, antique shops and historical sites. You can bike and bird-watch in the Corrales Bosque Preserve, hike in the nearby mountains or find a shady spot to kick back and do nothing at all.
As I drove down Corrales Road, watching the afternoon sun illuminate the majestic Sandias, I was on a particular mission: to taste delicious wine. Corrales is home to two small-production wineries – Milagro Vineyards and Corrales Winery – and will soon add a third, the newly licensed Acequia Vineyards. But, aside from the loyal customers who make repeat visits to the tasting rooms (and Milagro’s limited retail and restaurant distribution), the Corrales wines are a well-kept secret. Going on the recommendation of a Santa Fe chef whose palate I trusted, I had fairly high expectations, but, with the first sip, I got my second surprise of the day. It begged the question: how did two retired New Mexico engineers become such talented winemakers? The answer: hard work and commitment.
For Rick Hobson, who founded Milagro Vineyards 10 years ago with his wife Mitzi, finding the grape-friendly combination of sandy soil and cool microclimate in Corrales was a lucky accident. Bitten by the winery bug during trips to Napa Valley, the intellectually curious chemical engineer thought that a return to his farming roots might be a fun way to spend retirement. (“I wasn’t going to be one of those golfers.”) As far as Rick knew, no one had grown grapes in Corrales, but the spot was an easy commute to his job, and it felt right.
In 1985, Rick planted grapes, both on his own and others’ property, learning through trial-and-error how to work with the challenging terroir. “The conventional wisdom was that grapes couldn’t grow here,” he says. “My goal was to show what could be done.”
Driven by his engineer’s penchant for problem solving, he called in a University of California-Davis-trained viticulturist who worked with California wineries. He helped Rick change his trellis system, refine his pruning practices, perfect his irrigation and survive the spring frost. Unlike West Coast vintners, however, he lacked support systems: soil had to be sent away for analysis, and there was no trained labor to work the vineyard. With a single employee, Alfonso, and occasional local volunteers, Rick soon learned that growing grapes is incredibly labor-intensive.
When you sample Milagro’s wines, it’s obvious that Rick has not toiled in vain. Along with a Corrales White, a delightful blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, he makes a crisp, delicious Chardonnay, a non-malolactic-style aged in French oak, one of the best in its price range ($20) I’ve tasted anywhere. A red-wine lover, Rick’s winemaking skills shine in his fruity, perfectly balanced Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Merlot. Guaranteed, you won’t go home empty-handed.
What makes the visit to Milagro Vineyards even more delightful is its beautiful new tasting room and meditation garden, presided over by the effervescent Mitzi. Besides helping Rick with the winery, Mitzi has been a passionate rescuer of Boston terriers and pot-bellied pigs – the last of which, Wilbur, is no longer around, but lovingly immortalized on the Milagro label. Tasting is by appointment only. 985 W. Ella, 505-898-3998, www.milgrowine.com.
There’s nothing retiring – or retired – about Keith Johnstone, whose sense of humor is matched only by his dedication to the craft of making wine. Together with wife Barbara, he started planting grapes in the early ‘90s and selling them to other New Mexico wineries. When their wines started winning awards, Keith figured it was time to see what he could do with those prize grapes himself.
A career engineer at Sandia Labs who loved his job (“I built things and then blew them up; I never had to grow up,” he chuckles), he naively expected that winemaking would be a breeze.
“Arrogance is a trait common to engineers,” Keith wryly observes. “I thought, if you let the grapes just sit there, they’ll become wine in a couple of weeks. After all, they’d been making wine for 6,000 years – how hard could it be?”
He quickly found that instead of a “romantic, laid-back profession,” he had an “eight-day-a-week” job, beginning before sunrise and ending well after sunset, with endless repetition and bending over, and virtually no time off. Yet even now Keith hires no help, wanting to retain complete control over the entire process to ensure consistency.
“Every decision has impact, so I want to know what happens,” he says. “If there’s a screw-up, I know who to blame. First and foremost, I want to know what I did right and did wrong.” Adds Keith, “The single-most-spoken phrase around a vineyard is, ‘What the hell is the matter now?’ – which appeals to his engineer’s “fix-it” nature.
Keith keeps his production to about 1,200 cases and limits it to a handful of varietals. “If I went to 3,000 cases, I’d have to upgrade all my equipment and sell 10,000 cases to justify the expense,” he explains. He believes in perfecting his existing wines before experimenting with new ones. Everything he bottles has to meet his high standards, or, as in the case of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, he doesn’t go there. Corrales Winery’s award-winning wines include a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Muscat Canelli. They also make a robust Merlot and Sangiovese, a Vidal Blanc and some unusual blends – the Mariachi (Baco Noir/Cabernet Franc), Rojo Blendido (Merlot/Sangiovese) and Vinadora (Riesling/Vidal Blanc).
Corrales’s wines are only sold in the tasting room, which offers a stunning view of rose bushes, vines, and the Sandias – a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Open Monday through Sunday, 12-5 pm. 6275 Corrales Rd., 505-898-5165, www.corraleswinery.com.